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Magnus Carlsen's online tournament taps into new internet chess boom

Magnus Carlsen, the world champion, aims to fill the void from the cancellation of over the board chess by launching an online super-tournament, starting 18 April, where he will compete against seven of his major rivals, including the world Nos 2 and 3, Fabiano Cariana of the US and Ding Liren of China, for a $250,000 prize fund, easily a record for internet chess.

The Magnus Carlsen Invitational is set to go ahead online at the website chess24.com. Invitees are Carlsen and seven other elite GMs, including Caruana and Ding, It will last until 2 May, and its format will be an all-play-all group stage of four-game mini-matches. Competitors will have 15 minutes for each game, plus 10 seconds for each move made. The top four players in the round robin will then compete in the knockout stage for the $70,000 first prize.

A tournament of this scale online has never been organised before, and could revolutionise the sport. Several anti-cheating measures will be in force, including mandatory cameras viewing the players. The tournament is planning supplementary engagements where online chess fans will even have the chance to play the top competitors and the World Champion himself. Every game will be broadcast online by chess24.com with expert commentary in nine languages.

Several million players already take part in online chess on three major websites. Interest has spiked in recent weeks due to people forced to stay at home because of global lockdowns. Try it for yourself! For newcomers, I recommend lichess, where you can very quickly select your own time limit, find an opponent, and play a game all for free.

Carlsen’s new move comes amid continued controversy over the eight-player Candidates to decide the Norwegian’s challenger, which was aborted in Ekaterinburg last week after seven of its 14 rounds. France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was leading on tie-break from Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi.

Arkady Dvorkovich took a personal decision “after just a few seconds of thinking” to suspend play last Thursday when he learnt that international flights out of Russia would be banned as from the next day. The global body Fide’s president feared that the grandmasters from China, France, the Netherlands and the US would be stranded indefinitely.

This is the third time in the last half-century that a Fide president has had to make such a decision, and the consequences of the previous two were momentous. In July 1972 Max Euwe bent the rules to allow Bobby Fischer to arrive late in Reykjavik to play Boris Spassky. The match still nearly foundered at the start, but Euwe’s judgment was vindicated when Fischer’s victory led to the greatest boom chess has ever known.

In February 1975 the Fide president Florencio Campomanes stopped the first Anatoly Karpov v Garry Kasparov in Moscow when Karpov led 5-3 in a race to six wins but had just lost two in a row. It probably came after pressure from Soviet officials who feared that the exhausted Karpov would collapse, even though both players said they wanted to continue. The match was replayed later in 1985, Kasparov won, but he ceased to trust Fide and in 1993 he and Nigel Short launched a breakaway organisation which split the chess world for 12 years.

Events proved that Campomanes probably got it wrong. Now in 2020 Dvorkovich seems not to have seriously considered continuing the Candidates until its scheduled finishing date of 4 April. There were stringent medical precautions in place, and thus a good chance that the event could have been concluded normally. Dvorkovich is a former deputy prime minister of Russia, and would have been in a position to pull strings in Moscow for a request to lift the flying ban for a single chartered flight to take the players out of Russia.

Dvorkovich and Fide still plan to complete the Candidates, again in Ekaterinburg, later this year, but what if coronavirus persists for a long time? The world title match was scheduled for December 2020 at Expo Dubai, an event which now seems likely to be postponed until 2021. It would not be surprising for the conclusion of the Candidates was also to be delayed for 12 months, as all concerned still want the match to take place in Dubai.

Teimour Radjabov qualified for the Candidates, withdrew citing virus fears, and now demands to be included if and when it continues. The Azerbaijani has many supporters, but Fide will not agree and the matter could end up in the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne.

Carlsen, for his part, seems to be enjoying the argument: “Regardless of what happens, I’m not a victim. If I get to play a match that would be fun, it would be interesting, and if I get to sit on the title a bit more I’m not going to complain!”

3665 1 gxh5! Nxh5 (Rxd4 holds out longer) 2 Rxf7! Rxf7 3 Rxf7 Kxf7 4 Qxg6+ Kf8 5 Qh6+ Ng7 6 Bg6 with the decisive threat 7 Qh8 mate.

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